Re: Replicators, was Non Homuncular Memetics

Aaron Lynch (
Thu, 02 Oct 1997 12:36:58 -0500

Message-Id: <>
Date: Thu, 02 Oct 1997 12:36:58 -0500
From: Aaron Lynch <>
Subject: Re: Replicators, was Non Homuncular Memetics
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Aaron Lynch responding to Mario Vaneechoutte:


>> >If you read past discussions, I think you will notice that homuncular
>> >reasoning is lurking around the corner (I hope you understand my English
>> >here) all of the time, when you speak of memes as replicators. Intention
>> >or not, memes are treated as active agents, while all they are is
>> >information which is being replicated.
>> [snip]
>> In my own usage, treatment of something as an "active agent" merely means
>> that it plays a strong role in causation. You can, if you wish, replace all
>> of my uses of the word "replicator," with the cumbersome phrase
>> "instantiation of an abstraction that causes a new instantiation of the
>> same abstraction."
>> Abstraction? Yes. "Water molecule," for instance, is an abstraction which
>> scientists have found useful for discussing phenomena. What they really
>> mean by "water molecule" is a particular PATTERN of matter and energy. It
>> is a way of calling two or more patterns of matter and energy "the same,"
>> ignoring such differences as location, velocity, rotational states,
>> vibrational states, oxygen 18, Hydrogen 2, nuclear spin states, electron
>> spin states, electron excitation states, quark states, etc. Is it ever
>> legitimate to identify PATTERNS amid all this seething matter and energy? A
>> philosophy of science question.
>> Causation? Yes again. Chemists have, for instance, decided that certain
>> "molecules" are "catalysts." They play some role in causing the formation
>> of new "molecules." Moreover, they have even decided to call some molecules
>> "autocatalysts," because the new "molecules" they help "cause" are "of the
>> same kind" as the "catalyst molecule" itself. How can you say this happens
>> when all that's really there are agglomerations of matter and energy? Maybe
>> science is, among other things, a project to develop and test ever stronger
>> abstractions with which to describe and comprehend reality.
>> Now perhaps it was a pedagogic device, but biologists have started calling
>> a certain class of autocatalytic molecules "replicators" even as they
>> recognize that the molecules are "autocatalytic" by indirect and complex
>> routes involving such other molecules as "enzymes." This alone does not
>> require homunculi. Yet a further misguided pedagogic device (along with
>> political agendas in some cases) brings the assertion that these
>> "replicator molecules" have "interests," a "point of view," and are perhaps
>> even "moral agents." You may have noticed me arguing against such
>> homuncular genetics with Nick--even as he may have been playing devil's
>> advocate. Still, I do not insist on also throwing out the idea of "genes"
>> or "molecular replicators" even though these "entities" are in fact
>> of patterns of patterns compared to fundamental particles.
>> Moving to still higher levels of abstraction, we find people talking about
>> "ideas," again asserting that two "people" can have *the same* "idea." We
>> also hear about "communication," in which one person can "cause" (by
>> complex means) the occurrence of an "idea" in an other person. Sometimes we
>> even hear about "causation" of "the same" idea in another person. This
>> would seem to include the "information which is being replicated" that you
>> mention above. Yet we also hear about "ideas" causing "behaviors,"
>> including "communication behaviors." When an "idea" causes "communication
>> behaviors" that result in a new instantiation of "the same" idea in a
>> different person, we have what you might call autocatalysis. Or
>> "replication," in the stronger sense of the term. My own work certainly
>> allows for stronger and weaker uses of the term "replication," reflecting
>> the differing degrees to which ideas can cause new instances of "the same"
>> idea by way of causing specific communication behaviors that convey that
>> idea. No need to get alarmed with a notion that I am calling ALL memes
>> strongly autocatalytic or self-replicating, even though I have chosen to
>> specialize on the small but important fraction of memes with strongly
>> autocatalytic effects. (My specialization resembles the specialization of
>> "geneticists," who focus on a class of autocatalytic molecules rather than
>> molecules in general.) And there is certainly no need to suggest that I am
>> invoking a homunculus!
>I can agree with your general picture here. And in opposition to what
>you suggest in the first paragraph, my view on 'life' is a very
>dynamical, relational one.
>First to make things clear: I was responding to Nick Rose. It was Paul
>Marsden, I believe, who referred to "Aaron Lynchs' homuncular memetics".
>It was Paul also who wrote that Nick didn't make use of this kind of
>reasoning (while I believe it was clear he did).
>Never mind.
>Only one remark: 'replicator' isn't just an abstraction like 'water',
>because it refers to some current paradigms on the origin of
>replication, of the genetic cell, of life. Many contemporary reknown
>biologists (Orgel, Maynard Smith, Dawkins, ...) incline to believe that
>nucleotide strands were autocatalysts. I will try to argue about this in
>a manuscript in preparation for JOM-EMIT. It is from this 'belief' that
>Dawkins suggested the analogy with memes, and thus he suggests -
>according to my interpretation - that indeed memes are autonomous
>replicators. So, Nick Rose and others didn't misinterpret Dawkins, but
>follow his suggestion quite straightforward. (I should hasten to explain
>that I do agree with the gene as the unit of selection (the major issue
>of Dawkins work), but this is a different matter than saying that genes
>are replicators.)
>Important with this respect is your mentioning of 'autocatalysts'.
>I do not think that autocatalysts exist: no molecule can make a
>duplicate of itself (I'd be glad if you could name me one). Only
>autocatalytic cycles (i.e. chemical interactions between different
>molecules) exist and indeed these can make duplicates of some molecules.
>The issue is that 'replicators' are supposed to be true autocatalysts:
>the initial DNA and RNA molecules are 'believed' to have been capable of
>autocatalysis on their own: all you needed was a stretch of DNA and some
>nucleotides to make a copy.
>So, this definition (replicators are autocatalytic molecules, not
>depending on an autocatalytic network) is quite different from your
>explanation as 'replicators' being just a specific case of
>I will try to show soon that this is just a paradigm, which is hard to
>maintain, also in genetics, and with importance in memetics.

To take a very strict, rigid definition, autocatalysis does not exist. But
the same strictness also implies that enzymes, for instance, are not true
catalysts: they depend on all sorts of other molecules, including a vast
assembly of "water molecules." Setting aside this prohibitively strict
definition of catalysis, we see that "water molecules," for instance, are
co-catalysts to enzymes. Moreover, we see that enzymes can be
autocatalytic: Cytochrome C, for example, catalyzes reactions that help
bring on new molecules of cytochrome C -- both in the same cell and in
daughter cells. In other words, you could very well decide to call
Cytochrome C a "replicator." Yet biologists have discovered that the
synthesis of new enzyme molecules in a cell always involves nucleic acids
at some point. This has led to the "central focus" on nucleic acids as
autocatalyists and replicators.

My reply to all the talk of "homuncular memetics" should probably have been
directed to Paul Marsden, except that I couldn't see what it was in my
writing that inspired that idea. I even wondered if he may have misread me
or confused my writing with someone else's.

Even if you disagree with some of the beliefs that catalyzed Dawkins's
overture on memetics, I should add that my own involvement in memetics did
not result from prior exposure to Dawkins. I would have introduced the
subject using a different neologism if Dawkins had never published.
Moreover, I do not favor dependence on analogies except as pedagogic
devices and sources of initial inspiration. Mature memetic science should
not DEPEND on analogies.


--Aaron Lynch

THOUGHT CONTAGION: How Belief Spreads Through Society The New Science of Memes Basic Books. Info and free sample:

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